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Struggling to Survive in School

The China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation recently released a report on its three-month study of impoverished university students. It indicates that many needy female students have overcome huge obstacles, such as traditional biases against educated women and poor-quality primary education, just to get to university. Once there, they often find living subsidies woefully inadequate, loans all but impossible to obtain and even the most menial part-time jobs hard to find.


Starting out in debt

Meng Na was born in Zhecheng County, in central China's Henan Province. In 2003, Meng was admitted to China Agricultural University in Beijing. By selling all their grain and borrowing money from all their relatives and friends, her parents cobbled together enough money to send her to the capital city.


Meng's tuition fees are 5, 000 yuan (US$604) and lodging is 1, 200 yuan (US$145), but she only had 2, 300 yuan (US$278) when she got to Beijing. Since CAU, like many other universities, allows disadvantaged students to pay their fees in increments, Meng put down 1, 400 yuan (US$169) for these expenses, leaving herself 900 yuan (US$109) to live on for the rest of the year.


The university gives students like Meng a living allowance of 107 yuan (US$13) per month. She was also lucky enough to find a part-time job in the university where she can earn 80 yuan (US$10) a month by spending half an hour every day cleaning a computer room.


Meng set a strict budget for herself, spending no more than one yuan (12 US cents) per meal. Her studies require that she use a computer, which costs one yuan per hour at the university. She spends at least three yuan a day on that. She was forced to spend about 50 yuan (US$6) recently on new clothing and shoes, replacing older items that had worn out.


The likelihood of her family obtaining more money for her tuition and living expenses is slim, since only five people are working but there are nine mouths to feed.


Fifteen percent of students in agricultural, forestry and normal universities are, like Meng, in serious financial straits; this group of "most impoverished students" -- those whose living expenditures are below 120 yuan (US$15) a month -- account for about 8 percent of the student body in comprehensive universities. The basic living allowances of these students do not reach the lowest standards set by the universities. They are unable to pay tuition fees and buy necessary items for study.


I have a dream


Zhang Deli, from the Yimeng Mountain area in east China's Shandong Province, is a student at the Central University for Nationalities.


Zhang's older sister began working at age 16, having given up her studies after graduating from primary school. She sends Zhang 300 yuan ($36) a month to help her with her education.


With a loan of 3, 000 yuan (US$363) obtained from the local credit union, Zhang paid all her tuition and lodging fees for her freshman year. But this September, she will have to pay another 6, 000 yuan (US$724) for the coming term. "It was hard for me to get the loan last time, " says a worried Zhang. "It will be more difficult to get it this year."

She is looking for part-time work during summer vacation.  


"I don't care whether it is mental or manual work provided it can help me earn money," says Zhang. "I don't care even if I demean myself with the most humble work, because I own nothing in the world."


For Zhang, anything is worth being able to fulfill her dream of running a school in a remote rural area. She believes that every child should have access to education.


Emotional & financial debt


Zhang Ting, 20, a freshman at the Animal Medicine Department of China Agricultural University, is from a small village in central China's Shanxi Province. Zhang's father, the head of their farming family, died suddenly not long after her admission to the university.


After her father's funeral, Zhang's aunt, with whom she lived while attending middle school, managed to gather for her the 5, 600 yuan (US$676) she desperately needed for tuition and lodging. The aunt and her husband live on small pensions, but she cajoled other family members out of 1, 000 yuan here, 200 yuan there, until finally 7, 000 yuan (US$846) was accumulated.


"The money will be repaid sooner or later. But the emotional debt will never be paid off," says Zhang.


Once at school, Zhang got 400 yuan (US$48) by applying to the university for a subsidy. She has tried to find part-time jobs, but with no luck. With no financial resources, Zhang had no choice but to economize. She lives on 6 yuan (70 US cents) a day.


Since the university stopped providing personal credit guarantees, Zhang Ting cannot get a student loan. Worried about tuition and lodging fees for the coming school year, she plans to stay at the university this summer to find a part-time job.


Plight of poor students


The China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation launched the New Great Wall Project on September 1, 2002 to help the poorest students in schools nationwide. The foundation spent 9.3 million yuan (US$1.1 million) by the end of 2003 to help 3, 671 students at 321 universities in 28 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions.

Female students have been specially targeted in the project.


"The notion that a woman without talent is thereby virtuous still exists in China," says Huo Qingchuan, who is in charge of the New Great Wall Project. "Many girls discontinue their studies almost as soon as they start learning. The most impoverished female students in universities managed to finish their primary and middle schooling despite the bias. However, they meet a new problem when they go to universities: their families can scarcely afford the tuition fees and other educational expenses."


Working their way through college is not always an option. "Part-time jobs for university students are growing scarcer and scarcer, "Huo said. "Opportunities for male students are limited, and it's worse for females. Also, male students can post notices on the streets that they are looking for part-time work, but female students are ashamed to do that. Even if they can find part-time jobs, they must think about time, distance and safety. Men are relatively free of these considerations."


"Sex discrimination still exists in this country. Many work units close their doors when they find the applicants are female students, " Huo said.


The survey of the most impoverished female students in university was launched soon after the spring semester started this year. One thousand questionnaires were sent to female students at 20 different agricultural, forestry, medical and normal universities; and 759 students at 14 universities responded.


"The New Great Wall Project defines the most impoverished students as those whose living expenditures are below 120 yuan (US$15) a month," said Huo. "The impoverished students are those whose expenditures are below 180 yuan (US$22). Of course, the criteria are treated differently in different places. For instant, people living on less than 300 yuan (US$36) a month in Beijing, should be considered impoverished."


More than half -- 52.2 percent -- of the most impoverished female students who responded to the survey attend comprehensive universities. Another 19.4 percent are at agricultural universities, 15.3 percent from normal universities, 6.6 percent from forestry schools and another 6.6 percent from schools of medicine. Some 38.1 percent of them get less than 100 yuan (US$12) a month from home; 44.3 percent receive 100–200 yuan (US$12–24); and 17.6 percent get more than 200 yuan (US$24).


Nearly three-fourths of the respondents are from rural areas. Over 70 percent of the most impoverished students are from old revolutionary bases, border regions, poverty-stricken areas and areas inhabited by minority ethnic groups. Their families tend to be short of manpower and their incomes just enough to provide food and clothing.


Urban families are also increasingly facing similar problems as the number of laid-off workers climbs.


Only 11.9 percent of the respondents come from single-parent families and just 0.5 percent are orphans. The overwhelming majority, 84.3 percent, are from families with two or more children.


Tuition generally runs between 3, 000 (US$362) and 8, 000 yuan (US$966) a year. It may climb as high as 10, 000 yuan (US$1, 200) at some top universities. Adding the cost of lodging and other living and studying expenses, each student usually pays at least 10, 000 yuan per year. This is a huge burden in a country where rural per capita annual income in 2003 was 2, 622 yuan (US$317) and urban per capita income averaged 8, 500 yuan (US$1, 028).


Many of the most impoverished girl students say that the struggle is worth having the opportunity to improve themselves and their living conditions. They keep their sights trained on the future. 


(China.org.cn by Unisumoon July 19, 2004)

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